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Setback in Northern Ireland

The good news from last week's Northern Ireland elections is that no one expects a resumption of violence. That elections were held at all is a triumph. The bad news is that the peace process of the 1998 Good Friday accord is stalled.

In a bitter irony for the moderates who have struggled to make the process work - the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party - the elections rewarded the political extremists. The Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which rejects the accord, and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA), both vaulted over their opponents to become the leading parties in their communities.

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Still, a majority of voters supported pro-agreement parties. The two largely Catholic parties both support the Good Friday accords; the mostly Protestant Unionists are badly split. Since a government requires support from a majority of both communities, and since the DUP refuses to work with Sinn Fein, stalemate appears the order of the day - for now.

The IRA made the Good Friday accord possible with its cease-fire several years ago. But it is to blame for failure of the peace process so far: It has continued "punishment" beatings and shootings, and played word games instead of openly disarming. It thus hardened attitudes in the Unionist community and undermined the UUP's David Trimble, who is more willing to cooperate with Sinn Fein.

Britain and Ireland, the accord's guarantors, rightly insist there is no going back. But progress probably will be slow. The IRA could improve the outlook today and pull the rug out from under the hard-line Unionists by doing what it was supposed to do all along - get rid of all its weapons and cease all paramilitary actions.


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